PERMACULTURE ON BODHI HILL

Seventeen trips to Burma and each trip is so different, over time they have become more interesting and enjoyable. No longer a tourist, merging into the culture with the locals comes naturally, although each year I do try to explore a different area in this diverse country. This year it was a trip into Kayah state, recently opened to foreigners, but that is another story and this one needs to focus on permaculture.

Last year I received a phone call from a friend in Burma asking me to meet a Shan man who owns 60 acres in the Shan hills. He is a keen social activist and has a vision to establish a Steiner boarding school, a retreat, restaurant and various other activities on the land, along with permaculture principles to provide for most needs required by the people and the land. I traveled to the site to view it with the owner, his wife and a Steiner educator.

By the time we had walked from the local village to the property, we were engulfed by clouds moving in with a deluge of monsoonal rain. We retreated back to the village, slipping and sliding down the clay road, arriving at the village saturated and sandals caked in a layer of clay. This year I have visited the site twice, with the weather being much kinder. Each time we took a local farmer and questioned him about the local knowledge and history of the land, as he created a path for us, slashing with his machete through the scrub and jungle.

I requested a spade, which in Burma is more like a multi-purpose hoe, so we could dig into the soil in various places. In most areas, the soil looked dark and rich with a nice amount of top soil, thanks to keeping it covered in plant growth even if it is scrub in some places, it protects the soil and enhances the biology by not exposing it to the harsh conditions of seering sun and monsoonal rains. I have seen the harm these conditions can impose on bare soil, in another project I have started working on.

I like to keep all senses alert while exploring the land, feeling the direction of the wind, watching where shadows lie, observing plant growth and regeneration, listening for life, taking in the smell of the land and soil, etc. On the first trip this year, along with the farmer and owner came an architect from NZ who is also involved with the project and a professor from a University in San Francisco.

We covered a large part of the land, which is two ridges forming a steep valley and as we moved down the slopes it became very steep and damp when breaking through the scrub into jungle. I was pleased to have a walking stick, the farmer had cut for us providing good support. It was surprising how different the land appeared from the contoured map, potential zones were repositioned and a large area was identified suitable to grow timber and firewood. We are leaving the substantial areas of jungle intact and promoting regeneration, which looked really healthy. It was an exhausting effort, up and down the slopes and we were rewarded with a delicious meal on the way home.

After moving on to view another project that had developed in a totally different area (this will be another story), and spending time collecting up my products to export back to NZ, it was time to leave Burma and return to Thailand to renew my visa and attend a friends beach wedding.

I was feeling the need to return to Bodhi Hill to explore the rest of the land and seek out a water source deep in the valley. I returned there with the architect, owner and the farmer. We had a great day discovering new flatter and open areas we hadn't realised existed. Pushing our way thru the dense growth and becoming entangled in thorny vines was not the time to think about snakes, centipedes and scorpions that could be there.

I have found that a great indicator of water is wild bananas growing randomly nearby, sure enough they lead us to two springs that combined into a nice flow. It was exciting to find and a great place to sit, observe and contemplate, in that area I noticed some very large, dark worms. For me it was an exhilarating day in the jungle and the process to start developing the land was falling into place. Four different architects from different countries have designed a cluster of buildings each and a timeline has been set to start developing the land and planting out shelter belts and other trees. This is a revolutionary project for Burma and I am honored of be part of it.